By the time the polls closed in last September’s independence referendum, a triumphant Alex Salmond was convinced he had won. Scotland, the then Scottish National party leader believed, had voted to leave the UK. We know now that Mr Salmond had let hubris get the better of him. He was wrong: his Yes campaign lost by 10 points; and the next day Mr Salmond resigned the leadership, handing over to Nicola Sturgeon.
So, why is Mr Salmond the one grinning almost five months later?
The answer is that the self-proclaimed “bogeyman of the British establishment” thinks that the nationalists are about to destroy Labour in Scotland and, by holding the balance of power at Westminster in the event of a hung parliament, broker Scottish independence or something very close to it. To that end, Mr Salmond is standing in May’s UK general election in the Gordon constituency in northeast Scotland with polls suggesting that the SNP will win at least 30 seats.
Of late, unionists have been comforting each other by saying the polls are wrong and that Labour will somehow recover in Scotland. But the release of a “super-poll” funded by Lord Ashcroft suggested complacency is misplaced.
The Tory peer’s team surveyed more than 16,000 voters and the results have produced something akin to a collective nervous breakdown in Scottish Labour. The poll suggests a swing from Labour to SNP of 21 to 27 per cent, which would mean Douglas Alexander, Labour shadow foreign secretary, losing his seat. Labour could go from 41 Scottish seats to five.
That would mean the death of the old party system in Scotland. Previously, Scots voted differently in elections for the devolved and UK parliament, and roughly a third were in favour of independence. At Westminster elections the SNP was seen as a wasted vote, meaning that the party scraped 20 per cent in the 2010 contest. A year later it won the devolved elections.
Now, the excitement of the referendum, and unfounded accusations that Westminster has backpedalled on more powers for the Scottish parliament, appears to have galvanised the 45 per cent who voted for separation into full-time SNP voters. Despite the party being in government in Edinburgh, it is also attracting the anti-politics vote from those wanting to kick Labour and the Westminster elite.
The implications for the rest of the UK, in terms of looming instability, are grave. Indeed, the rise of the SNP is much more significant than the emergence of the UK Independence party, because it could mean a bloc of SNP MPs attempting to barter away Britain’s nuclear deterrent and pushing for other concessions.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is doing his best to remain calm. Mr Miliband believes that Jim Murphy, the new Scottish Labour leader and a member of the last Labour government, is a street fighter who can win. But it is difficult to see how Labour can recover, particularly when time is so tight. Election day is only 13 weeks away.
In an effort to narrow the gap, Mr Murphy, a former Blairite, has tried everything to reinvigorate his party. Earlier this week he even joined up with former prime minister Gordon Brown to advocate giving the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh further powers to pay higher pensions and invent new welfare benefits.
This is how bad the situation has become, with Blairites seeking the aid of their old enemy Mr Brown, while the party frantically revises its policy on more powers for the Scottish Parliament, increasing its offer to voters on what feels like a weekly basis.
So far, none of it is working. The SNP is on course for victory, leaving Mr Murphy and Mr Miliband very little time to wipe the smile off Mr Salmond’s face.
The writer is author of ‘Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the men who blew up the British economy’